I’m standing at the rear of the funeral parlor, waiting to see if I’ll recognize anyone or if anyone will recognize me. It’s been almost forty years since I’ve lived in Chicago. After a few minutes, I see the back of Linda’s head and shoulders. Her hair is no longer auburn, but I know it’s her. She’s seated in the front row, next to her two children. It doesn’t look as if she’s crying and I decide it’s a good time to pay my respects. Happily, the casket is closed. Linda stands and embraces me.
“Thanks for coming, Michael.” she whispers. “Here, sit next to me. Mason, Ellen, you remember Mr. Tupper.” They nod, but how would they remember me? Ellen was only a couple of years old and Mason was in utero the only other time I saw them. I shake their hands as Linda motions for them to move down a seat.
I feel I shouldn’t be sitting with the family; I’m an outsider. It’s a fraud. But what can I say? Herb and I were no longer friends? I came here more to see you than to pay my respects? None of this would be appropriate. So I sit, assuming the role of a mourner. Linda takes my hand.
“It’s been difficult,” she whispers.
“Of course,” I say, not really knowing if she’s talking about Herb’s death, the divorce that preceded it by a year, or—and here’s where I worry I’m going crazy—being without me.
Once, years ago, when we were dating, I gave her a stuffed panda for her birthday. “Something to sleep with when we’re not together,” I had said. She gave me a disdainful look.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Linda said. “It’s cute. I’ll put it on my desk.” It was clear she was upset at my comment and the next time I was in her apartment, the panda was neither on her desk nor anywhere in sight. “So she didn’t like me taking our fucking for granted?” I asked myself. No good deed.
Herb’s suicide was a shock. I hadn’t heard from him in several years. He had seemed fine then. He had retired from the IRS and was adjusting. I know this is what you tell strangers or friends you don’t often see: Things are fine; everything’s great. But I believed him.
Our relationship had long since drifted into coolness. We had become old-time acquaintances rather than friends. Ask me, before the funeral, the names of Herb’s children and I couldn’t tell you. I was the one who had moved away, but neither of us bothered to pick up the phone and call the other. Email helped some, but it’s not real communication, especially not with someone you’ve known since kindergarten. However, we both seemed okay with it. Herb would forward jokes or his right-wing revelations about the president’s birthplace, with notes saying it’s been checked out at Snopes. I would send him jokes about old people and sex, things that had been forwarded from a libidinous friend on the West Coast. I also sent links to stories written about our old neighborhood.
Even though I thought the relationship with Herb had devolved from friendship to something less, on those occasions when we did get together it took only a few minutes until the old familiarity bubbled to the surface and we fell into relating to each other as if they were still in high school. Kidding each other. Remember when we did this or that?
I noticed, however, that I remembered little of the things that now, in Herb’s mind, seemed to define our relationship, things that more often than not embarrassed me. Herb told people about the time I threw up in science lab, for example, or the time—as Herb recalled it—I lost the touch football game by dropping a last minute touchdown pass. Whether these things happened as he suggested was disputable and also not the point. It’s just that Herb assigned an importance to them I didn’t share.
After some years, I heard from a mutual friend that Linda had left Herb. Maybe that had something to do with his suicide. I wanted to know. I was hoping it was because he found out he was going to die of some painful, incurable disease and not because Linda walked out on him. It was something we shared, Herb and I: having been discarded by Linda. I had been young and resilient. Unfortunately, Herb was old, ailing, addled, and defenseless.
Now the place is filling up. A line forms to pay respects to the family and I am obliged to stand there as a mourner. People I don’t know are shaking my hand, telling me how sorry they are. I adopt a mournful look and nod. Who must these people think I am? Herb’s brother? Linda’s brother? Her new boyfriend? Ha! I recognize a few from high school. If they’re surprised to see me sitting between Linda and her children, they say nothing. I need to talk with Linda, find out why she wants me sitting next to her, why Herb killed himself. A lot of whys. Talking now is impossible and all the crying, the Kleenex, is having an effect on me. Tears well up in my eyes. I feel like a method actor. I don’t actually mourn Herb’s death, but I’m doing a good job convincing myself that I do. This is not a personal trait I admire.
The line of well-wishers traces down the aisle, up to the back of the parlor and out into a large lobby. It seems to me as if they could be there all day. The children, both in their thirties, seem to take no notice of me. The four of us are busy shaking hands, hugging Herb’s friends, his old co-workers, his relatives. I keep eyeing people as they shuffle past the children and on to me. Which one will ask me what the hell I think I’m doing standing next to the aggrieved ex-wife?
But it doesn’t happen. Linda insists I accompany her in the long black limo to the cemetery and then on to Herb’s house, her house, the same house I had visited those many years ago, where now the meal of consolation will be served.
Linda was someone I had fallen in love with and dated soon after college. She was my first serious affair. One evening we were having a quiet dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant and she said, “Michael, something’s happened. I’m involved with someone.”
“Involved?” I said.
“It just happened. An account executive at work. I know this is terrible to say, but I’ve got to give the relationship a chance to work.”
I leaned back. “There’s a relationship?”
“Michael, please. It just happened.”
“You said that. And I’m trying to figure out how this relationship ‘just happened’ while you’ve been fucking me.”
“Shhh,” she said, “Keep your voice down.”
“I’ll do better than that,” I whispered. And I got up and walked out. I didn’t make a fuss. I didn’t see myself as the type to plead with a woman to take me back. Still, I sometimes wondered what would have happened if I had.
Herb was helpful then, not allowing me to brood. He fixed me up with young women who were captivated by my pain. God knows how Herb built that up to them. But in the end, I measured them all against Linda, with the foreseeable conclusion. Surely I wasn’t the only one who thought there was something special about a first love.
A year after our breakup, I moved to Louisville and a short time later I heard that Linda and Herb were engaged. Apparently, the account executive didn’t work out. The news came via a mutual friend and I supposed then that Herb felt too guilty to call me himself. In my mind, there was nothing to be guilty about: Linda and I were history, but maybe Herb thought I would think something had been going on between them while we were dating. Which got me thinking that maybe there was. I don’t remember obsessing about it, but I knew at some level I deeply resented Linda marrying Herb. Maybe anybody, but definitely Herb. I didn’t drive up for the wedding, sending a substantial gift instead.
The summer before the start of college, Herb and I had purchased an old clunker and drove west. We argued most of the way about this and that, nothing consequential, but if there was a theme to that trip, it was our arguing. We made it just past Billings, where the car stopped running. The mechanic shook his head the way they must teach them at mechanics school and pronounced it dead. We stayed at a cheesy motel for three days while trying to figure out a way to get back home. The rental car company turned us down and we ended up taking a train and a bus. It was at the motel that Herb really started getting on my nerves, and I supposed I was getting on Herb’s as well. “I shouldn’t have let you talk me into buying that piece of junk,” Herb said. The whine in his voice reminded me of the sound the engine had been making the last hundred miles before it sputtered and died. As I remembered it, Herb had a need to assess blame for just about everything and an annoying way of sidestepping blame for anything. On the bus from Billings to Rapid City, we didn’t speak. Things warmed up a bit on the train to Chicago after we met two young women and there was a need to appear affable.
Years later on one of my visits to Chicago—we must have been in our late thirties by then and I was engaged to Betty—I called Herb. Linda answered. Herb was out of town on an audit but why didn’t I come by for dinner? She sounded cheerful and I accepted. I was anxious to see how she looked after all those years, and brief fantasies blossomed in my brain about being alone with my old girl friend. I supposed every guy thought about the one that got away, the old flame. If she came on to me, how should I respond? What if she said she married the wrong man? I wanted to think that through. How I would react. Is it likely we could carry on an affair without Herb finding out? Upsides, downsides. I drove over there having decided nothing.
She met me at the door, very pregnant, with a two year-old hanging onto her skirt. She looked worn out, face flushed, hair undone, no makeup. Which is to say she looked fabulous. She kissed me quickly on the cheek. “Come in. This is little Ellen. Ellen, say hello to Mr. Tupper. Glad you could make it. Herbert will be so sorry he missed you. He talks about you all the time.”
I wondered when she started calling him Herbert.
It was a nice evening, just not the one I had invented. Linda was friendly, but made no romantic overtures. It was as if she was showing me, maybe once and for all, there was nothing between us, that I needn’t bother trying to rekindle this sodden match.
She surprised me by saying Herb talked about our trip west as the highlight of his bachelor years. One rollicking adventure after the other. “Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?” she asked.
How could it be that Herb’s memory of our trip was so completely different from mine? Was Herb being honest with Linda? With himself? Or was I the one with the faulty memory? Did I unconsciously change the facts after finding out Herb and Linda were engaged? The thought, now, makes me uncomfortable. If I’m able to do that, who knew how much else I was misremembering? I guessed we each build up our own myths, which harden, like the tempering of steel, in the repeating. A slight exaggeration becomes an unassailable truth.
At the house, someone, Linda probably, had laid out old photographs of Herb. There is even one of the two of us from about the seventh grade. We were both crossing guards, with our white belts and AAA badges. I saw this as my certificate of authenticity. I would bring people to it. “That’s Herb,” I’d say, pointing. “And that’s me. We started kindergarten together.” It turns out nobody there knew Herb longer than I did and I imagine people saying, “Oh that’s why he was sitting with the family.”
After the crowd goes, I am sitting with Linda on the couch. “So how did he do it? And do you have any idea why?”
Linda starts crying again. The “how” is death by bicycle. “About a month before his death, he took up riding a bicycle,” she says. “He’d go off on his own for an hour or two almost every day. He’d call me in the morning. ‘I’m on the bike,’ he’d say, and I encouraged him. It was getting him out of his house. Now I know he was preparing to kill himself. He got on Skokie Boulevard that morning, waited for the right time and swerved into an oncoming truck.”
“You’re sure it was suicide?”
“He left a note.” She goes to a table next to the front door and takes a sheet of paper out of a thin drawer.
Goodbye, Linda. My life is over. I might as well make it official.
“It’s typed,” I say.
“Vintage Herbert. The ‘why’ is complicated,” she says. “Am I black widow, Michael? I don’t think I could live with myself if I thought I drove him to it. After he retired, he lost all interest in life. He’d sit in front of the TV, a vegetable. I’d try to get him to do things. We’d argue. I was going crazy. He refused to get help. Eventually I left him. Had to, to keep my sanity. The kids were great: Always calling him, stopping by to see him. But he didn’t respond to them any more than he did to me.” She puts her hand on my knee. “Have you ever forgiven me for leaving you?”
“You dumped me for some guy you worked with,” I say.
Oh, Michael. I don’t remember anyone from work. Are you sure?”
“For a long time I didn’t forgive you.”
“But now. I mean now after all these years.”
“Of course,” I say. “It’s in the dim past.”
“And you had Betty for all those years,” Linda says.
“Widow and widower. We have that in common.”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
Is this just talk? This is a woman who moaned during our lovemaking, told me she loved him. I try picturing her body, her breasts. So long ago. And here I sit, holding her hand after her ex-husband’s funeral, thinking about touching her, kissing her. Sick, I know, but there it is.
“I’ve had some relationships. But now I’m comfortable living on my own. I see a few women. If I was younger, you might call it dating.”
“I think we met too young. I know I was immature. I thought you were getting serious and, to be honest, it scared me. I didn’t think I was ready to settle down.”
“You hooked up with Herbie pretty damn fast,” I say.
“Herbert was like a father figure. Solid. Dependable. You know.”
“Were you seeing him before you broke up with me?” I hadn’t intended to ask the question, at least not so baldly and it takes me by surprise as much as it does Linda.
“Michael. Of course not.” Her face flushed. “He was our friend. Yours and mine. Did he secretly love me back then? He’s intimated as much over the years. But…”
I touch her shoulder. “I’m sorry. That just slipped out. None of my business really.”
“I just don’t want you to think I could have done that to you. I couldn’t have.”
I want to believe her. I do believe her. “I should head out,” I say. “It’s a six hour drive.”
Ellen and Mason come in about then and sit next to us. Linda squeezes my hand and lets it go. I tell them I’m driving back to Louisville. “Shame you can’t stay longer,” Linda says, again taking his hand.
Politeness or something more? I realize I’m hoping she’ll implore me to stay on for a few days, a week. But I’m not about to invite myself to stay. If she wants … whatever, she’s going to have to make the first move. Getting back with Linda in what’s euphemistically called our waning years makes a lot of sense to me. I realize it was the reason I drove up for the funeral. I never really got over her, and now that both Betty and Herb are gone I think we can be happy together. But I’m not going to make a fool of myself by pleading this case. I always thought sooner or later she’d realize we belong together. Sooner is long gone and now it’s later and I think by showing up at the funeral I’m giving luck the best chance of success.
“I’ll be in touch,” I say.
She nods and leaves it at that. She walks me to the door, kisses me on the cheek and says, “You don’t know how important it was to have you here.”
I almost say that I’ve decided to stay on for a few days, but I worry she’ll view it as a weird come-on. So I say nothing.
The door closes and I think I hear Linda say something like, “Now that was weird.” It could have been something else, and even if I heard correctly, her meaning was ambiguous at best. On the drive home, I comfort myself with the thought that after a suitable period of mourning, she’ll call.